Thursday, 10 November 2016

Looking at a painting

Tory victory in 2015. Brexit and Trump elected in 2016. Things stink right now if you’re on the liberal-left, like me. And things stink even more, if like me, you don’t feel that either Jeremy Corbyn (aged 67) or Bernie Sanders (aged 75) are providing a vision that might show us a pathway towards some sort of recovery for the liberal-left. I don't draw attention to Corbyn or Sanders ages to invite ageist discrimination, but rather to underline the point, that I strongly feel they're looking backwards rather than forwards.

With apologies to an actor I know (I'm adapting his words) there's a backlash across the world against people like Corbyn and Sanders, against people like Blair and Clinton, against people like us. And we're not getting it. The soft left or liberal left has to many let down the working-classes and "ordinary people" by supporting the late capitalist project towards globalisation and free trade, which has taken their jobs and ripped apart their communities, as immigration supplying cheap labour sustains that economic and political project. The traditional left fares little better, as while the rhetoric (as opposed to policy - they're out of power) is sceptical about globalisation and provides comforting retro messages about restoring the welfare state and reviving traditional manufacturing industries; it doesn't seem to fit with the modern world of superfast change, increasing automation, and technology. 

The puritanical tone of the left amplified again and again within the social media echo chamber and without by the 24 hour news media (though Blair's self-righteous piety was hardly better) grates. Many voters outside the cities and urban areas also don't like the focus of the traditional left on issues they don't feel concern them or are (as they perceive them) against their interests (sexuality and gender; perceived support for immigrants; anti-imperialist foreign policy and disarmament; internal schism within the left itself). 

Adapting again my actor friend, most people have looked at all this over the last eight years and they've decided increasingly that they don't just not like what they see. They've decided they don't like us. They see us as the liberal left-ish elite. They think we look down on them, they think that we think they are crass, dumb, racist and misogynistic and that we know best. They believe that we believe that our world view is the only one that's true. They feel we all live in a cultural bubble of same-think and group-think. 

The vast majority of the world thinks it's bollocks, and that we walk around with our noses in the air. And their response is that it isn't worth getting into an argument with us. They simply give us a metaphorical punch on the nose and walk away. And they keep walking away. And we keep losing votes. And it's going to get way worse in the next few years as we see the impact of all this in upcoming elections in France and Germany. They feel they just don't want the same things as us. Perhaps, rather than us just telling them that they're stupid and wrong we better start facing up to it.

But how do we face up to it in the UK? What are the policy offers that can come from the left that gain broad support and help to grow again a sense of social solidarity, that as result of war, gave birth to the post-war settlement, that we've seen painfully torn apart over the last 37 years. What gives everyone a sense of counting and belonging. I think the moves on the liberal-left towards a Universal Basic Income in the UK (an interest shared by both MP Jonathan Reynolds and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell) and away from benefits may be one very popular and pragmatic way of supporting society's poorest and vulnerable and engendering social solidarity.

I'm not implying, by the way the left should abandon the fight for equality, for human dignity in all areas of society and human experience and a common sense defence and foreign policy (I think we'd be much better off spending money on our conventional armed forces given the unhappy relations with Putin's Russia, than on renewing Trident). But I suspect that a Universal Basic Income, building a million new homes and funding the NHS properly might be much more popular and provide security for the majority and "ordinary people" against the harsh winds of globalisation. The rampant right in Europe and across pond never provide that sense of security and they see little value in a sense of social solidarity beyond a nostalgic sense of nationalistic identity. 

Reform of the electoral system to PR ought to be in the next Labour party manifesto too. Screw a further a referendum. Every vote needs to count going forwards. Let's all be included and accept that winner takes all elections emphasise division and conflict rather than the common good. In our superfast, super-connected world globalisation is here to stay. So is robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing. I'd recommend (if you can be bothered) "The Future of Work:Jobs and skills in 2030".

And in the areas of society I work in, in the arts and education, we must fight for the idea that we all grow and are enriched by learning and cultural experience, that is an end in itself rather than just as a means to an end. Let's rebel against the utilitarian thinking that exams, quantifiable outcomes, career arcs, cost benefit, and economic value are the only values that really matter. A life without a hinterland (of any kind, it might be sailing or supporting West Ham United FC) isn't much life at all, it's just an existence, in my view.

Being empowered to look at a painting and wonder about it, is as valuable as being able to write a CV. I want to avoid nostalgia and any retro thinking of my own and don't seek to turn away from the world as it is myself. But "Middlemarch" may be as rewarding as the complete "Breaking Bad". I love losing an hour or so playing FIFA17 on my PS4 but it's nothing like as rewarding as the shared experience of sitting in a theatre, even as some laugh and some cry at exactly the same moment. Perhaps we may even rediscover the idea that voicing and articulating your ideas over 1000 words may be more useful than a 140 character brain-burp on twitter.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

A week in a writer's life (as opposed to career) – (and I’m just scratching the surface here).

When I used to keep a blog "One Writer and His Dog" (2006-2008) one of the aims was to give some realistic insight into a writer's life. A week or so ago I got a bit frustrated on twitter about the assumptions other people have (as we can be accessed easily via social media if we use it) that writers have limitless amounts of time to attend to every query that comes their way. I find myself waiting a bit this morning so I thought I'd write this...

Monday 24 October

Spent the morning working through a movie screenplay with the director. By the time I got back home I was too shattered to function properly. After supper a bit re-energised, an hour on the phone with a theatre director about something or other.

Tuesday 25 October

Good morning on the film but a bit distracted by the news about Emma Rice leaving the Globe. Headed off to meet a producer about a TV series. Two hour meeting. Very hard to get back into the screenplay afterwards. Various pastoral stuff to attend to at Birkbeck College where I lecture part-time.

Wednesday 26 October

Travelled to Manchester and back to collect my son for his half-term stay. Read another hunk of Dan Davies brilliant “In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile” on the train up. A remarkable book which deserved it’s Gordon Burn prize. After my son went to bed I was too knackered to write.

Thursday 27 October

Fun day with family. After my son went to bed I worked on the film from 10pm until 1.30am.

Friday 28 October

Up at 6am to work on the film for a couple of hours before my son surfaced. Managed about a good hour before he got up. Went to the Tower of London with my son and partner. My boy thought it was hilarious I called Beefeaters “Beefburgers” when I was a kid.  Lego construction in the afternoon. Working on my screenplay in the evening. By 10pm finally getting to the end of the pass on my movie. Pressed send. Would have liked more time but locations being scouted etc. from Monday.

Saturday 29 October

A trip to the local park, pumpkin-carving, play date with some friends and their kids and some early trick or treating. Strictly: Ed Balls best dance yet.

Sunday 30 October

Morning with my son and back to the park after some reading and writing with him. Drop my son off at Euston and legged it to the pub to catch Everton v West Ham. Good first half, poor second half. Saw “I, Daniel Blake” at the cinema. A vital film but disappointed by it a bit too. Too much hype?

Monday 31 October

Wrote lecture focusing on Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” and Roy Williams’ “Fallout”. Did further preparatory work on a TV series. Delighted by news Andrew Thompson (who I mentored for the Arvon and Jerwood foundations in 2014-15) has had his play “In Event of Moone Disaster” selected as a finalist for Theatre 503’s Playwriting Award. Finished the Dan Davies’ book while my other half watched “Dark Angel” on TV. Falling asleep by quarter past ten.

Tuesday 1 November

Making a list of all the things I didn’t get time to do last week. Re-reading students work and prepping notes for them. Read some reviews of “The Nest”. Sent text to Artistic Director about something or other – no reply. Rang director – no answer. Waiting.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Politics redux

A few years ago I had a blog called "One writer and his dog". From time to time I've thought about reviving it, particularly as the 140 characters available on twitter seem woefully inadequate for any sort of meaningful debate about the things I'm passionate about; writing and politics. Now a few things have come together that make me feel now's a good time if not to revive the old blog but to begin a new one.

So what are those reasons?

I guess the general election result which was and is devastating for many of us on the liberal-left is one trigger but I've been concerned too for some time that new theatre is becoming too inward-looking, focused disproportionately on formal experiment and innovation, and collapsing the boundaries between traditional theatre and play-making, and live art. The energy appears often to be with the auteur director, whether Goold or Van Hove. Of course there's nothing wrong with these things, indeed formal innovation led by writers from Beckett and Osborne, through to Kane and Churchill, now to Goode and Stephens is part of the very rejuvenating lifeblood of the theatre.

It's not my complaint that there is so much innovative work being made. Its just that with so much focus at the cutting edge of formal innovation and process within the theatre, the impetus in making new work is often by default inward-looking and self-referential. But new forms are not the only part of the story in a vigorous new theatre which can reach out to a wide audience. As Sarah Kane understood the form and content should be one. So what new stories are we telling (how about Routes by Rachel De-lahay?) How are new stories told engaging vibrantly with old forms (how about the wonderful King Charles III?) or old stories engaging with new forms (I haven't seen it but I guess Carmen Disruption would be a great example). Is how we make work for us or our audience? How do we reach not the 9% but the 91% of our population who don't go to the theatre? How do we overcome our metro-centric focus and make work and shape a theatre that is genuinely representative of our nation? What a scandal that so few plays written by women are produced.

I don't have answers to these questions but I feel we should in the theatre really begin to try and answer them. Of course, as its obvious (see above) the theatre is addressing the bigger picture beyond making at the cutting edge formally. But how do we reach the 91%? I feel certain that the silly notion that theatre should be more theatrical or more collaborative (as if an act of theatre isn't by default either theatrical or collaborative) won't help us now any more than it did in the 1980's. Nor will a return to the hectoring political theatre of the 1980's. At worst the theatre reeks of sanctimony and self-satisfaction when it does so. A self--congratulatory 9% strategy will ensure the life of theatre in my lifetime I'm sure, but it won't ensure the life of theatre over my son's lifetime. So we have a responsibility to reach the 91%. I don't care much for those in theatre who put ideological and aesthetic purity above reaching and challenging a broad and wide audience. They will lead the theatre in to the wilderness.

Labour had a 35% strategy to win the election or at least to be able to lead a new liberal-left coalition. It didn't work. We on the liberal-left were so busy being annoyed with the bastard coalition of 2010-15 that we didn't see that it was possible that people outside of our immediate social and professional circles would not agree, and indeed that Labour policies and it's narrative would fail even to reach the 35%. We have to face the facts to the majority of people living in this country, far greater than the notional 35%, Labour seems metro-centric, inward-looking, against aspiration, it doesn't appear any more to know what it stands for beyond a vague idea and assumption it is morally and ethically superior. It's not connecting outside of London and the north of England with ordinary working class, the blue-collar class or middle class people.

People don't think Labour is for them. Just as 91% of the population don't think theatre is for them.

At a conference I attended recently I sat on a panel with Chris Campbell, the literary manager of the Royal Court Theatre. He made an impassioned call for a "reverse Brechtianism", fearing that theatre had recently concentrated too much on the head and not the heart. He said we had to tell new stories that made an audience feel, which I took to mean to connect emotionally. It also made me think of John Osborne's notion that he wanted to give an audience "lessons in feeling".

I agree with Chris. I've always felt you make more of an impact by making an audience laugh and cry and catching them in a drama, and telling story and exploring ideas through dramatic action. People want to go the theatre when they think they're going to have "a good night out", Outside of the liberal-left arts silo people funnily enough don't want to go to theatre if they feel its going to make them feel stupid or lectured. Post-dramatic theatre or an auteur's flourish won't attract the 91%.

As I tweeted on May 8th "I'm a #Labour man through and through but its wrong to attack the electorate. The liberal-left has to win votes not blame voters for losing". While I've written more for TV recently I'm also a man of the theatre. I don't want to write for the 9% I want to write for the 91%.

More before too long.